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Shellmound preservation effort strong

Josh Parr
Thursday September 07, 2000

Paved over, built on, and even sold for fertilizer and tennis court bedding, the West Berkeley shellmound is now completely covered by the cityscape.  

Monday evening, the Landmarks Preservation Commission convened to discuss procedures to preserve the remnants of Native American culture that lie beneath the blacktop. 

Though the commission did not endorse a proposed amendment to the existing Landmark Ordinance written by Vivian Khan, acting deputy director of the city’s Planning Department, it did unanimously decide to set such guidelines at a later meeting. 

Included in Kahn’s proposal were expansions of the Shellmound District boundaries, permit approval requirements, environmental review requirements, and exemptions for emergency repairs. 

At stake is the Landmarks Commission’s ability to review all permits for development, whether repairs, construction, or infrastructure work, that take place in the Shellmound Cultural Resource District - a swath of land extending beneath I-80 to what is now the Nature Company parking lot at the corner of Hearst Avenue and Fifth Street. 

“Basically,” says Khan, “the intent of the proposal was to preserve the resource. It would set guidelines for reviewing proposed building permits in the area so that any decisions made around development or repair would be based in fact – so you’re not flying blind and destroying a historical resource.” 

Several bones of contention were exhumed in last night’s deliberations. 

“We’ve never had to protect a resource that we can’t see,” Kahn said. “How to balance protection with the needs of developers is extremely delicate.” 

The proposals to extend the LPC’s jurisdiction to city streets was unprecedented, according to Rene Cardinaux, director of public works. 

“It’s the first time they’ve landmarked blocks and streets,” says Cardinaux, “and it could affect the ability to maintain utilities.” Cardinaux attended last night’s meeting to find a way to fast track public works’ projects in the shellmound area. 

“The protection proposals create a separate zone with its own rules, and I want to be able to maintain utilities and streets without having to get permission from the landmarks committee. What happens if there’s an emergency one morning, and the committee isn’t meeting for a month? 

“I don’t want somebody standing over me saying, ‘Hey wait a minute, you might be disturbing some shells,” says Cardinaux. 

Also affected will be the competing telecommunication firms trying to make inroads into Berkeley. Because West Berkeley is a growing area for dot-com businesses, competing telecommunication firms are attempting to access the “undeveloped” Oceanview neighborhood with cable and telecommunication technology. Building terminal boxes across the city, the telecom companies only need a city permit issued by the Public Works Department to begin construction. Because all permits to dig would fall under the supervision of the Landmark’s Commission, it could cause delays for “customers who want DSL lines.” 

If the shellmound district expands, as proposed, the zone would extend to include the Frontage Road and the Hearst Avenue right of way, an area covering Spenger’s Parking lot, Truitt and White Lumber Company and myriad smaller residences and dot-com “lofts.” If such a designation is given to this chunk of cityscape, argues Cardinaux, it would create a zone where something as simple as digging a hole in the ground would require an archaeologist and a Native American observer to get accomplished. 

So the public works head wants to map out the area, “to show where all the pipes and previous excavations were. This allows us to show that we’d be taking out soil that had already been imported, and didn’t have any historical resource in it. That will allow us to go ahead with the work that we need to get done, the work would be pre-approved,” says Cardinaux. 

“What I’m doing is getting control back on the streets.” 

Essentially, Cardinaux would be able to green light telecom digs through the Shellmound district, something that Leslie Emmington Jones, a member of the commission opposes. 

“We should have Pac Bell come before us,” she says. “If it falls under preservation, that’s what this commission is for.” 

Activists from the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association say that such practices will not only undermine commission authority, but will chip away at an irreplaceable resource. Even if maps show where the imported soils are, “crews often miss by a foot or so, and even that would destroy historical resources that we don’t even know exist,” says John Dore, principal of Archaeological Mapping Specialists. 

“City workers would have the ability to designate what a cultural deposit is or isn’t. I often have to call in a geomorphologist to determine what’s an artifact and what’s not,” says Dore. 

Furthermore, public works excavation techniques don’t lend themselves to finding or preserving such artifacts, says Stephanie Manning, a member of BAHA. “There are piles of rubble from past digs sitting by the railroad tracks, and I’m certain that artifacts can be found inside them.” 

Richard Schwartz, a local contractor and author of “Berkeley 1900,” a compendium of old Berkeley Gazette stories, says that such a loophole provides carte blanche access for development and places a historical resource in the hands of people whose primary interests are at odds with preservation. 

“In construction, everybody’s job depends on construction. If you think that anyone in the field has an interest in reporting archaeological finds, think again,” said Schwartz. 

He also remembers what happened to the Emeryville shellmound. “There were all kinds of promises about what would happen there, but because protecting the site was not a priority, the shellmound is now gone. 

“The only way to preserve the shellmound is to decide to protect it. Trying to find a balance between development and preservation only means that preservation is being compromised,” says Schwartz.